- History Of The Great Kilt
- The Great Kilt is known in Gaelic
as the feileadh beag (little wrap) to distinguish it from the
feileadh mór (big wrap), the belted plaid. There is some
debate about exactly when the kilt was first worn and who created
it. There has been much written about a 1725 Englishman named
Thomas Rawlinson, owner of an iron works in Glengarie and Lochaber,
as being the the 'abbreviator of the feileadh mór to the
feileadh beag. And many Englishmen have been proud to boast that
it was Rawlinson who invented the modern kilt. But not so fast.
The Armorial Bearings of the Chief of the Skenes (1692)
clearly shows a man wearing a feileadh beag. The story of Rawlinson
has since been disproven by scholars to the great delight of
- Through the works and efforts of historical scholars we can
find the first known reference to the kilt as a mode of dress
in 1594, in "The Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell".
O'Donnell was in some distress and an Irish Corps of Hebrideans
came to his aid. In his account of the event, he provides the
following description of his rescuers:
- “They were recognized among the Irish soldiers by the
distinction of their arms and clothing, their habits and language,
for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks of many colours with
a fringe to their shins and calves, their belts were over their
loins outside their cloaks."
- The feileadh mór has become known as "The Great
Kilt". It was made from wool, often grown on one's own sheep.
It could take a year to shear and spin enough wool to make one
kilt. The yarn would then be taken to the local weaver to weave
- Wool, then and now, is not very different. Most lengths of
wool ended up being about 9 ells long (just over 9 yards) and
sometimes as much as 12. Any more would be too much to work with,
not to mention extremely cumbersome to wear. So a man wanting
a Great Kilt would ask for "The Whole 9 Yards",
or 9 ells as the case may be, introducing the concept that a
man must have 9 yards of cloth to make a Great Kilt. However,
remember one thing: the tartan of ancient times was 27"-30"
wide, which is the width provided by ancient looms. To make a
Great Kilt, the 9 ells would be cut in half to create 2 pieces
of tartan, single width (27"-30") wide and 4.5 ells
long. These two pieces would then be stitched together to make
1 Kilt, 54"-60" wide and 4.5 ells long. Today's looms
can weave cloth to a double width, 54"-61" wide, eliminating
the extra step of buying 9 ells. But the concept of 9 yards for
a Great Kilt is still practiced and favored by many reenactors.
- The Tartan
- The woven fabric was often left in it's natural state of
color; in blacks, whites and browns. But many weavers would offer
to dye the fabric with colors made from local berries, roots
and nuts. Creating local and clan patterns of color, which we
recognize as Tartans. But they weren't so generic as one might
- The Tartan did indeed originate
in Ireland, and it was then introduced to the then unnamed country
of Scotland by the Scots, who moved from Ireland to re-found
their ancient kingdom, Dalriada. It was they who gave Scotland
its name. The very first form of tartan is nothing like its modern
day counterpart, being a type of shirt that ended just above
the knee, known as léine in Irish Gaelic. It is generally
accepted that it was made of linen, and although the earliest
references to this garment describe it as light-colored, it may
have been of a darker yellow shade which led to the English describing
it as a saffron shirt.
- In the 16th Century there are many descriptions of the léine
and comments made by a French visitor to the country in 1556
- They wear no clothes except their dyed shirts and light woolen
coverings of several colours.
- This suggests the first attempts at making a distinctive
pattern with the material of the coverings - the plaid. However,
there is no evidence to suggest that after this time, the Scottish
Gaels carried on the Irish practice of making the léine
with these stripes.
- In later times, colored stripes were incorporated into the
léine to indicate the rank of the wearer; the first attempts
at what is now known as tartan.
- A High King wore seven stripes, one of these being purple
- the color of royalty.
- The Ollamh (chief man of learning) wore six on his (even
then, learning and scholarship was held in very high regard.)
However, the shirt gradually went out of use in favor of the
- In 1645, at the Battle of Kilsyth, Montrose instructed his
men to put away their plaids and to tie the ends of their shirts
between their legs. But the men who weren't Irish or didn't wear
the shirt as a result of the ruin of the Irish linen trade, had
no choice but to wear their plaids. And wool, which before had
been a rare commodity in the Highlands, was now becoming abundant
thanks to the growing number of sheep herds in the land. And
so, the plaid grew from being little better than a rug to a long
piece of material between 12 and 15 feet in length, which the
Highlanders would pleat round their waists in folds, pull over
their heads like a hood and use as a blanket at night. Although
the léine was still in use, it was now used as a covering
for the upper body while the plaid was used for the lower half.
- By 1730 the patterns had evolved from simple stripes and
patterns into what today would be called tartan, from the French
word tartaine. And even royalty were getting in on the act. By
1538, records showed that James IV had learnt Gaelic and his
son, James V, adopted a variation of the highland dress, wearing
a short Highland jacket made of velvet, tartan 'trews', and the
léine. The phrase 'Heland tertane to be hoiss' refers
to a kind of tight trousers, or hose, a pair of which survives
to this day. However, although the dress of the average Scot
seems to have been standardized by then, the sett (the pattern
of the tartan) of each clan was not; subtle variations of the
same clan tartan were still to be found.
- Around the year 1618, evidence suggests that the setts became
standardized. This became necessary as more often than not, a
particular pattern would be identified as the tartan of the predominant
clan of a local area. In 1703, Martin Martin commented on the
skill of the weaver:
- The Plad wore only by the men is made of fine wool, the thread
as fine as can be made of that required in sorting the colours,
so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy. For this reason the
women are at great pains, first to give an exact pattern of the
Plade upon a piece of wood, having the number of every thread
of the stripe on it. Every isle differs from each other in their
fancy of making Plaids, as to the stripes in breadth and colours.
This humour is as different through the mainland of the Highlands
in so far that they who have seen those places is able, at the
first view of a man's Plaid, to guess the place of his residence.
- Act of 1746 - Abolition of
Great Kilt enjoyed popularity until the Act of 1746 banned all
forms of Highland Dress except for soldiers in Highland regiments.
The "Act for the Abolition and Proscription of Highland
Dress" declared that:
- From 1st August 1747 "... no man or boy within that
part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall
be employed as Officers and soldiers in His Majesty's Forces,
shall, ... wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland
Clothes ..." ... the plaid, philabeg, or little kilt, trews,
shoulder-belt, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs
to the Highland Garb. ..." " ... every such person
so offending ... shall suffer imprisonment ... and being convicted
on the second offence shall be liable to be transported ... beyond
the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years."
- According to some historians, orders were given immediately
to the troops after the passing of this Act were to "kill
upon the spot any person whom they met dressed in the Highland
Garb." That Act was repealed in 1782. It was then little
kilt or philabeg (the feileadh beag) which grew in popularity
rather than Great Plaid (the breacan feile or feileadh mor).
- The ban was enacted for several reasons. First and foremost
to break up Highlanders so they could not identify themselves
as a nation. As combined group they were dangerous to the crown
and English rule. Banning their clan dress and colors was in
a way forcing them to take on English garb and subdue them into
submission to the King. Another somewhat odd but interesting
reason, was to limit camouflage. Authorities claimed the plaid
enabled men to blend in with the heather and conceal themselves
for attack, either for robbery or murder. They even believed
that the plaid allowed men to instantly join a rebellion. The
kilt was used as their blanket, bed and clothing; giving them
freedom to move about quickly. They didn't have to go home and
pack, because their essential needs were already on their backs.
- In 1782 the 1746 Ban was repealed. The Highland Dress returned
with great excitement through all the classes of society. Even
the Lowlanders began to wear tartans and kilts. In the painting
"Military Promenade" by John Kay, the leaders
of fashion in Edinburgh wear ankle length skirts reassembling
- The occupation of Paris lead to some wonderful records of
Highland Dress in 1815. An account of the occupation of Paris
recounts that the Emperor of Russia requested a sergeant, a piper,
and a private of each of the Highland regiments to parade before
him in the Elysée Palace. He was particularly interested
in Sergeant Thomas Campbell’s hose, gaiters and legs. After
pinching the sergeants skin, “thinking I wore something
under my kilt,” Campbell lifted his kilt “so that he
might not be deceived.” Ah, the wit of the Scots. In the
royal visit of 1822, both the Lord Mayor of London and King George
the Fourth wore Highland Dress. This year marks the birth of
Highland costume as the Scottish National Dress.
- Kass McGann - 1997-2003 Reconstruction
- The BBC - History
Of The Tartan
- Dunbar, J. Telfer. History of Highland Dress. Philadelphia:
Dufour Editions, 1964.
- Glen, Duncan, ed. Whither Scotland? London: Victor Gollancz
- Grimble, Jan. Scottish Clans and Tartans. New York: Tudor
Publishing Co., 1973.
- McClintock, Henry Foster. Old Irish and Highland Dress. Dundalk:
Dundalgan Press, 1943.
- Norris, Herbert. Costume and Fashion: The Evolution of European
Dress through the Earlier Ages. London: J.M. Dent & Sons,